Recently, the National Defense Strategy Commission issued an alarming report in which Americans were warned of a “convergence of…trends [that] has created a crisis of national security for the United States,” and that the United States, “might struggle to win, or perhaps lose, a war against China or Russia.”
Most alarming of all, the current military readiness of America has degraded to a point that these experts now “expect adversaries to attempt debilitating kinetic, cyber, or other types of attacks against Americans at home while they seek to defeat our military abroad.” Finally, the report notes that, “U.S. military superiority is no longer assured and the implications for American interests and American security are severe.”
We recently increased defense spending to $717 billion from the $647 billion that was allocated to 2018. The report advocates increasing that number still more. The word “budget” is mentioned 96 times in the report and the report recommends that “Congress increase the base defense budget at an average rate of three to five percent above inflation” for the next several years and beyond.
Our Defense Spending Outflanks All Other Countries’
Putting that in perspective, the lower $647 billion figure is higher than any other country in the world, and I’m sure that statement doesn’t surprise you. Well, try this on for size: it’s also larger than the next 17 countries added together (the sum of which totals $642 billion). Consider also that many of the other highest spenders are staunch American allies: the United Kingdom ($50 billion), Germany ($47 billion), Japan ($44 billion), Israel ($20 billion), and Canada ($16 billion). Many of these countries are in treaty commitments to come to the aid of the United States should we be attacked (and have historically honored those commitments).
Some of them are already providing for their own defense, which reduces the United States’ burden to protect them. Viewed in that light, our staunch allies supplement our capabilities with an additional $175 billion of military spending. Consider also that many of the other big spenders are also allies, if not “staunch” allies. For example, Saudi Arabia ($56 billion), France ($40 billion), Italy ($38 billion), United Arab Emirates ($14 billion), Columbia ($12 billion), Spain ($11 billion), Afghanistan ($11 billion), and Taiwan ($11 billion).
China is the second-largest spender, at $151 billion. When one looks through the list, however, it’s difficult to identify a single country that would go to bat for China as a militarily significant ally. Likewise, Russia, which spends $47 billion, also has no militarily significant ally.
I’m not a military expert, but I pay taxes and I have a son who will enter draft age relatively soon. So I hold a stake in the size and breadth of our military. There are around 1.3 million active-duty members of the war-fighting services. We therefore spend about $500,000 per member of the military. The highest-paid general likely makes around $150,000 a year, so most of that money doesn’t go toward pay and benefits to soldiers.
It seems to me that if Russia could spend $47 billion on its military and achieve a force so formidable that it threatened to defeat the United States and her staunch allies (who combined spent $817 billion on defense this year), we should probably be asking some questions.
Are We Fighting Too Many Wars?
Even if you agree that both the Afghanistan and Iraq wars started out as noble endeavors, one can see that they have turned into costly quagmires. Both presidents Obama and Trump ran on winding down the Iraq War and seemed inclined to wrap up the war in Afghanistan. Yet the fighting continues to simmer.
In fact, the American on-the-ground troop commitment has quietly increased since President Trump took office. But we’re also participating in the conflicts in Pakistan, Somalia, Syria, Yemen, Libya, and Niger. We have ground troops in many countries that would surprise you, such as El Salvador, Columbia, and countries in Africa that you may never have heard of. One estimate suggests that the Defense Department has spent $5.9 trillion on various post-9/11 wars.
Of particular concern is our participation in the conflict in Yemen, Saudi Arabia’s southern neighbor. The war is on the verge of causing near-genocidal destruction. It’s estimated that 130 children die of starvation daily and that at least 1 million people have cholera and will likely die. American has given Saudi Arabia bombs and planes, which Saudi Arabia uses to bomb Yemen mercilessly––as many as 14 times per day, often attacking civilian targets.
In addition, America regularly directs drone attacks on targets in Yemen, including two U.S. citizens who were in Yemen. Why? Why is America involved in this massively destructive war? U.S. Central Command Chief General Lloyd Austin was asked to identify the ultimate goal of this air campaign. His answer was, “I don’t currently know the specific goals and objectives of the Saudi campaign, and I would have to know that to be able to assess the likelihood of success.”
The United States is a powerful and rich country, but our resources are not unlimited. Picture a man holding off a mob with a gun. While the mob could easily overpower the man before he could shoot all of them, nobody wants to be the first to get shot. So, with only a few rounds in his gun, he deters the entire mob.
When we commit to one war after another, the deterrence continues to be depleted, as there are fewer unspent bullets in reserve for the next attacker. I find it particularly ironic that pundits have criticized the use of the military to protect our own borders as though the protection of American soil is a distraction from the many missions abroad with far more distant potential American interests.
Where Is All This Money Really Going?
The Department of Defense recently announced that it failed its first-ever comprehensive audit. As noted by Politico, “Across the board, its financial management is so weak that its leaders and oversight bodies have no reliable way to track the huge sums it’s responsible for.”
The Defense Logistics Agency, which serves as the internal “Walmart” of the Department of Defense, “has little solid evidence for where much of [its $40 billion budget] goes.” In 2018, contractors spent $94,121,731 using an army of 736 lobbyists to influence procurement decisions that should be made based upon politically neutral criteria. That’s actually down from the peak of $153 million in 2008, but it is part of a 10-year trend of contractors spending $1 billion to lobby.
This is the kind of circular money flow guiding policymaking that President Eisenhower warned about in his famous farewell speech: The contractors use the profits from their taxpayer-funded military contracts to lobby for ever more expenditures of taxpayer funds.
In spite of laws to the contrary, procurement decisions can be further biased by procurement officials looking ahead to future employment with one of the bidding companies. Writing in The American Conservative, Bruce Fein profiled significant problems in DoD’s procurement systems that lacked transparency and invited fraud and waste. More money is never the solution to financial mismanagement.
Are We Too Focused On Protecting Saudi Arabia?
The recent death of Jamal Khashoggi has raised some very good questions about whether the United States is best-served by its alliance with Saudi Arabia. Our involvement in Iraq, Yemen, Syria, and even Afghanistan are all related to protecting Saudi Arabia from its regional rival, Iran. In fact, if one steps back and considers all of the conflicts in which the United States has participated in the last 25 years, one would think the protection of Saudi Arabia was the highest priority of our government.
These are very costly undertakings, so it’s worth asking what Americans are getting in return. The Atlantic recently published “Why the U.S. Can’t Quit Saudi Arabia.” I did not find the arguments persuasive. A significant amount of tax dollars and armed services personnel have been committed and lost in the name of protecting Saudi Arabia’s interests. Yet the case has not been made to the American people that the Saudis are indeed indispensable.
First, we no longer need Saudi oil. The United States is (or will soon be) a net-exporter of oil. Second, we seem to be working at cross-purposes with Saudi Arabia in the war on terror. Saudi Arabia supports and exports Wahhabism––a strain of Islam that inspires a lot of terror. As noted by HuffPost, out of the 61 groups that are designated as terrorist organizations by the State Department, the “overwhelming majority are Wahhabi-inspired and Saudi-funded groups, with a focus on the West and Iran and their primary [enemies].”
Private Saudi citizens reportedly funded Iraqi rebels who attacked Americans in the early part of the Iraq war. According to The New York Times, Saudis continue to finance the Taliban in Afghanistan, which continues to fight the U.S.-supported government in Kabul. If we’re concerned about Russian interference in American politics, we might also be concerned that Saudi Arabia lavishly funded the Clinton Foundation while it had matters pending before the Clinton-led State Department.
Or perhaps we should be concerned about the considerable money Saudi Arabia spends on lobbying and influencing American politicians. Saudi Arabia’s foreign agents in the United States contributed a whopping $1.6 million in political donations in the 2018 midterm election cycle alone. That seems like foreign meddling in an American election. (Somebody tell Robert Mueller!)
As drones and automation continue to play a larger role in the warfighting, America seems to be headed down a path in which little or no public debate is applied to the wars we fight abroad. Wars make enemies. The death of children and other innocent non-combatants is always a foreseeable consequence of dropping bombs on even the most vile enemy. Each of those deaths creates a motive for revenge against America. One can be a proponent of a strong military and rightly ask whether American interests are best served by how we spend our limited military resources.